After being closed to the public for nearly two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of Oregon's 450 tasting rooms began welcoming guests over the weekend. Gov. Kate Brown announced May 14 that 28 of Oregon's 36 counties had received approval for the state’s Phase 1 of reopening, which includes allowing restaurants and wineries to reopen at limited capacity.
Brown and the Oregon Health Authority issued guidelines for all industries to ensure their health and safety. Wineries that choose to open must observe social distancing for staff and visitors, as well as other safety guidelines including disinfecting surfaces between customers and wearing face coverings. Wineries also must limit parties to 10 people or fewer and end on-site consumption by 10 p.m.
"Our teams are looking forward to bringing a little enjoyment and normalcy back to the world. We hope our guests feel that as well," said Kristen Reitzell, vice president of public relations for Jackson Family Wines, whose Oregon properties include Gran Moraine, WillaKenzie Estate and Penner-Ash Wine Cellars. Reitzell noted that they have already received several appointment requests for the coming weeks, and are feeling the support and enthusiasm from customers eager to visit and support their favorite wineries.
The shutdown has been a significant blow to Oregon's $5.6 billion industry, which supports around 30,000 jobs and provides an estimated $787 million in annual wine-related tourism revenues. The bulk of that comes from Willamette Valley, home to nearly 600 wineries and a short drive from Portland. The majority of the region is eligible to open, including wineries in the subappellations of Yamhill-Carlton, Dundee Hills, McMinnville and Ribbon Ridge. Wineries in part of the Chehalem Mountains AVA, which spans three counties, will also be able to reopen.
Polk and Marion counties, in the southern portion of Willamette Valley, home to Eola-Amity Hills, were not granted permission to move into Phase 1 of reopening. Morrow and Umatilla counties, home to the Oregon portion of Columbia and Walla Walla valleys, were also not approved. Wineries in Rogue and Applegate valleys in southern Oregon have been allowed to reopen.
During a press conference, Gov. Brown said the success Oregon has had combating COVID-19 thus far has given her confidence. To date, Oregon has suffered 3,687 confirmed coronavirus infections and 138 deaths. The counties granted Phase 1 status had met criteria including a decline in cases, sufficient available resources and equipment, and the ability to trace outbreaks. She admitted that reopening comes with risk, and that the reopened counties will be closely monitored for three weeks before any further easing of restrictions. A spike in cases may trigger new shelter-in-place orders.
Opening with care
Many vintners are happy to be open again. "We're a small mom-and-pop operation," said Cody Wright, founder and winemaker for Purple Hands. "While I wish I had the resources to remain closed and be more respectful to this unsteady environment, we have to get back to work, or I'm not going to have anything to come back to." Wright said that when news broke about reopening, within a day they were booked with guests throughout the entire weekend.
Beyond the state-mandated measures, the Oregon Health Authority's guidelines offer suggested opening strategies, including limiting the number of staff who serve guests and assigning an employee to monitor the flow of visitors. They also suggest stationing an employee to control access to common areas such as restrooms, expanding outdoor spaces, and offering no-touch payment options.
An Oregon wine industry task force, including winegrowers associations from throughout the state, worked together to develop tasting room–specific guidelines that go above and beyond the governor's requirements.
Reitzell said modifications have been made at all of Jackson Family's Oregon properties, including creating more open and outdoor spaces. "We will also be implementing an appointment-only system to limit the number of visitors at any one time, but we also feel this will offer a more intimate and personal experience for guests." They have provided hand-sanitizing stations for guests and are conducting pre-shift health screenings for staff. And they've held training exercises with staff that included a rehearsal of the customer experience.
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Ryan Harris, president for Domaine Serene, said his winery could probably safely host 500 guests per day, but was aiming for 200, and hopes to build back to an average level slowly. "We are in a unique position because we have a large space and can distance people even beyond guidelines," he said. "We're going to take this opportunity to enhance our guest experience."
The pace of tourism is expected to be slower than usual this summer. Harris said Domaine Serene would open with a phased approach. The winery will be open four days a week with restricted hours at first, before moving into a regular seven-day schedule.
Wright said he is a little nervous about the customer's enjoyment. "There's nothing about a hospital setting that is fun or easy, and if no one can see us laugh or smile because of the mask we're wearing, it might be challenging to communicate the brand, and they may not want to come back." Wright said he is concentrating on efforts to make visitors feel more comfortable, including wearing fun masks. "We're trying to create some humanity amidst this."
Wait and see
Despite being permitted to do so, not all wineries swung open their doors this past weekend. "Our motto during this time has been to slow down and spread out, so we will take it slowly before we jump back into hosting visitors," said Amy Prosenjak, president and CEO of A to Z Wineworks and Rex Hill. Prosenjak says that while many of their club members and customers are eager to visit, she wants to emphasize the safety and health of her employees, and will wait and assess how reopening pans out for neighboring businesses.
Alison Sokol Blosser, CEO of Sokol Blosser, echoed Prosenjak. "While we are happy that cases are declining in Oregon, we want to be part of the solution in stemming the continued spread of it, so we will wait until we feel more confident in welcoming guests back."
Sokol Blosser said the winery has been inundated with phone calls inquiring about operating hours, but she doesn't think the winery can successfully give the staff and guests a safe and memorable tasting experience just yet. Until then, Sokol Blosser will continue offering daily curbside pickup and twice-weekly local delivery, as well as to-go tasting flights.
One winery on the outside looking in is Willamette Valley Vineyards, located in Marion County, which has not yet been approved for Phase 1. Winery director Christine Clair said they have already begun preparing, and she feels comfortable with the necessary guidelines. "We're going to have to live with a reasonable amount of risk for a while, but we feel like the safety guidelines adequately meet the unique needs of a tasting room."
Wineries up to the task may end up being guinea pigs for not only the rest of Oregon but for other key winemaking states like Washington and California, which have yet to reopen. "We're going to get to learn a lot from those that do open, and when our county opens, we'll be ready to go," said Clair.
Wright believes the first month is going to be strange. "Hopefully, we get through Phase 1 quickly [and] Phase 2 will allow for more flexibility," he said, noting that continued shelter orders in other counties and states make him a little apprehensive. Oregon's three largest counties by population, Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas, are all within a short drive of many wineries. "All the more reason for us to be by-appointment and control who can visit and when."
Meanwhile, the programs that wineries have adopted during the shutdown, including Instagram Live chats and virtual tastings, may remain a part of a winery's fabric. Harris hopes engaging with customers virtually can make up a portion of what they're missing from in-person tastings. "People have learned to enjoy wine at home, so those that can't visit or aren't ready to venture out can enjoy our wine on their terms."
Reitzell echoed Harris, noting that all Jackson Family wineries will continue to connect with customers virtually. "The silver lining in the last few months has been the discovery of entirely new avenues to bring people together over wine."